The Presence of International Terrorist Groups in the Western HemisphereAmbassador Francis X. Taylor, Coordinator for Counterterrorism
Remarks Before the Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere Committee
U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC
October 10, 2001
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee:
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Committee and testify with my colleagues on the subject of terrorism, and the presence of international terrorist groups in the Western Hemisphere.
The horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, just one month ago, were a jarring reminder that our country and our hemisphere are no longer safe from international terrorism. In this global era, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans can no longer protect our land and our people from violence, as they have done in previous international conflicts.
As you know, we have presented to both Houses of Congress and our coalition partners around the world clear and compelling evidence that the September 11 attacks originated in Afghanistan, with Usama bin Laden’s al Qaida organization. While this connection is clear, we must also recognize that the threats to our people and interests can come from any venue, including from within the Western Hemisphere. For that reason I would like to speak for a few minutes about terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.
This hemisphere is no stranger to terrorism. Although we in the United States have been, until recently, blessedly free of terrorist attacks by international groups, terrorism has been a fact of life in many Latin American countries such as Colombia and Peru for thirty years or more.
In fact, one can argue that modern terrorism originated in our Hemisphere. We date the advent of modern terrorism from 1968, four years before Munich, when revolutionary movements began forming throughout the Americas. The following year, in 1969, the first terrorist kidnapping of an American ambassador took place when Ambassador Burke Elbrick was taken hostage in Brazil by members of two revolutionary groups. In those early years of the still-new phenomenon, Latin America saw more international terrorist attacks than any other region.
Today, the most dangerous international terrorist group based in this hemisphere is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Included on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), the FARC have murdered 13 Americans since 1980 and kidnapped over a hundred more, including three New Tribes Missionaries, kidnapped in 1993, and now believed dead.
FARC leaders not only welcomed the September 11 attacks. Afterwards they reiterated their periodic call for the targeting of Americans for murder and abduction. In addition, we have seen in recent months evidence of an apparent relationship between the FARC and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and possibly the Basque separatist group ETA as well.
The danger presented by the FARC is compounded by activities of the other major Colombian insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) – a group that also targets Americans, and by the far-right United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Both of these groups are also included on the FTO list, and the AUC in particular has a history of extreme brutality.
In Peru, the Shining Path, though greatly weakened, continues to carry out sporadic attacks in isolated parts of the country. These attacks, mostly raids on small villages for supplies and financial gain, have resulted in 27 deaths so far this year, the majority of which were civilians.
Further South, in what is known as the "Tri-Border Area" where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay converge, we see the long-standing presence of Islamic extremist organizations, primarily Hizballah and, to a lesser extent, the Sunni extremist groups al Gamaat (IG) and HAMAS.
These organizations are involved in fundraising activities and proselytizing among the large expatriate population from the Middle East that lives in the Tri-Border area and also on Venezuela’s Margarita Island. These organizations engage in document forgery, money laundering, contraband smuggling, and weapons and drug trafficking.
The size and nature of these groups may signal the existence of clandestine support cells that could be activated to conduct terrorist attacks anywhere in the region.
Hizballah is the prime suspect behind the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 bombings of the Argentine Israel Mutual Association (AMIA) community center. These attacks were characterized by the same faceless cowardice that we saw on September 11, and they remain unsolved to this day, although I am pleased that a trial in the 1994 bombing is now underway in Buenos Aires. We hope the perpetrators will at last be brought to justice.
The hemispheric threats of terrorism are now moving closer to home. Turning to North America, we are faced with a more diffuse and insidious threat: the threat posed by our open borders with our friends to the north and south.
The world’s longest non-militarized border is that shared by the US and Canada, and the second longest is that shared by the US and Mexico. Since the inception of NAFTA, these borders that were already the world’s busiest in terms of commerce, have become even busier.
We will never have perfect knowledge of every person and every vehicle that crosses these borders. Therefore, it is imperative that we work hand in glove with intelligence, law enforcement, customs, and immigration officials in these countries in order to make it as difficult as possible for international terrorists to come into the U.S. undetected, as difficult as possible to cross and re-cross our borders with criminal intent, and with impunity.
We in the office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism view our relationship with Canada as the model for bilateral counterterrorism cooperation, and we know that we must continue to build on that solid foundation. Like our relationship with Canada, we must improve coordination with our counterparts in Mexico as well as with the Central American nations that act as points of transit for people and materials destined for the USA.
We know, above all, that we cannot stop terrorism alone. We know that our best hope at stopping al Qaida operatives and operatives from other terror organizations from crossing land borders into the US, is to continue close intelligence and law enforcement cooperation with Canada, Mexico, and the Central American states. We know that our only hope of limiting the threat posed by groups such as the FARC and the ELN in Colombia and the multiple Middle East-based groups in the Tri-Border Area, is close intelligence and law enforcement cooperation with our allies in these areas of operation.
With these goals in mind, we are working closely with the OAS to expand its involvement in Regional counterterrorism activities. My office has chaired the OAS Counterterrorism Committee (CICTE) for the last year and has sought to invigorate it as a forum for exchange of ideas and improved cooperation within the Hemisphere. We are pleased with our progress and are optimistic for the future.
My office has also worked with the interagency community to craft a Counterterrorist Strategy for Colombia and the other countries of the Andean region. This strategy is designed to complement last year’s Plan Colombia and this year’s Andean Region Initiative (ARI).
We also intend to intensify our bilateral relations with Mexico as well as those countries in the Andean and Tri-Border areas of South America to address specific threats from groups operating in these Regions. Much of our efforts in this area began before the events of 11 September; but that event has given even more urgency to these initiatives.
Now, more than ever, is the time for building coalitions against terrorism based on proactive diplomacy, proactive law enforcement, financial controls, intelligence sharing and iron-willed resolve in the pursuit of justice.
We cannot pretend that we can make terrorism go away, but we can, in the short term, make it far more difficult for terrorists to achieve their deadly objectives in this hemisphere.
This concludes my remarks. I will be happy to take any questions the Committee may have.